WILD AFRICAN QUEST – 16
19 – 26 January 2020
In the mid 1980’s, Bob Geldof brought Ethiopia to the worlds stage with his Live Aid concerts and Band Aid record. But when it comes to Ethiopia the list of things that now make it famous are endless. This is a country where the east African rift carved the country in two, creating beautiful mountains, high plateaus and highly active volcanoes in its wake.
It is home to the worlds hottest desert, the Danakil Depression which is 125km below sea, the Simien and Bale mountains whose rugged escarpments sour to over 3000m, 25% of Africa’s active volcanoes and a rich religious history which also claims it to be home to the Ark of the Covenent.
Legendary figures such as Lucy walked this land over 3.2million years ago, so named after the song that was repeatedly played in camp the night her remains were excavated, “Lucy in the sky with Diamonds”. Also gracing this land was the Queen of Sheba.
Between mystery and intrigue and perceptions of famine and starvation, Morgan crossed the border from Kenya into Ethiopia. His expectations and experiences where often conflicted.
“It was a really great ride to the Ethiopian border with a massive volcanic crater on route, and camels on the road are now a normality. I took a chance with the border crossing as I told it was closed on Sundays. What I also did not know is that at the border, lunch occurs between 12 and 2pm. However after a long wait I eventually bribed a local to go and find the customs officer, who then miraculously arrived and within a short space of time my paperwork was processed and I was on my way.
Riding from Kenya into Ethiopia was chalk and cheese. From vast open roads with hardly a soul to be seen there were people everywhere and the first 20km after the border was absolute mayhem.”
300km north, Morgan finally settled in for the night at Hagera Maryam amidst the preparations for Timkat, a festival which this year started on 20th January and lasts three days. Timkat is one of the main celebrations of the Orthodox Tewahedo Christian Church and marks the baptism of Jesus Christ in Jordon River.
The religious ceremony starts when models of the Ark of the Covenant, called Tabots, are carried to the river in a procession led by the most senior priest of each church, who carry the arks on top of their heads. At dawn the water of the river is blessed. The Tabot symbolises the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets describing the Ten Commandments.
From there his travels took him north to Hawassa, built around a lake that was formed in an ancient volcanic crater. Like most rift valley lakes it has its own resident hippos and birds but what makes this one unusual is that it has no river mouth to feed it. Then it was onto Lake Langano and by the second day of Timkat festival, he reached the outskirts of Addis.
Far from being a country having benefited greatly by the billions of dollars of Aid relief and perceived social development, he encountered a land mired by population and poverty, rambunctious teens and emaciated livestock.
“Today was like driving through a toilet. Honestly, the pollution alongside the road is worse than Warick triangle in Durban!!!! There is an excess of litter and constant shouting from testosterone overloaded teenagers called to the faranji – the foreigner.”
Fearing being stuck out on the open road as he travelled north he decided it was time to purchase a new front tyre and landed up haggling in a very unsuccessful first for a tyre, which quickly doubled in price when they saw how excited he was to find it. A R3000 Matis E07 with a solid rubber strip down the middle – a key to long mileage. With almost 600km left to go before the Sudanese border he quickly found the landscape become more and more rural and remote and the temperatures plummeting. Dinner was often goat with chips and injera, a slightly fermented grain pancake like bread, somewhat reminiscent of India’s dosa.
By the 22nd Morgan had gone from temperatures in the upper 30s to a sleeting rain with freezing cold temperatures of around 8 degreesC, so much so that he regularly stopped at local coffee stands to defrost his hands around their fire.
“Tell you something I was freezing today on the bike. It is now 7pm and I am tucked up in bed with my fleece and scarf on trying to defrost. My toes are like ice blocks. It was a long cold day with lots of animals roaming on the roads, and endless switchbacks. Trucks flying at you around blind corners making riding exhausting. I spent 10 hours on the bike today. The views are vast and the mountains stunning but the land itself is overgrazed and overworked. Aside from the local ‘bleeding hearts,’ the Gelada baboons, a regular sight is groups of men sitting around under the shade of a lone tree on stone benches sipping on home brewed beer. The further north I travel the more remote it gets. Today I actually though I saw a guy with a bone through his nose!
Then came Lalibella, a place where mystery and history collide. The idea to chisel the churches out of the bedrock of the land came to King Lalibella in a dream. Supposedly assisted by the angels 11 rock hewn churches were quickly constructed. Once carved out, an extensive system of floors, windows, roofs and drainage systems were carved.
“I spent the afternoon looking at the buried churches. It was a great disappointment due to the amount of litter that is lying all over this World Heritage site. They charge 50 Usd to look at all the churches but sadly they cannot afford to have a cleaning team.
The guards that are there to protect the churches also sleep in the churches so there is bedding every where inside. It is a pity the angels that helped build them are not here now to clean them up!”
So far Ethiopia to me has not been a great country and I have decided to miss the rest of the sites and head towards the Sudanese border tomorrow. It’s only 350km but the road is slow going.
The morning of the 25th, saw Morgan heading to Gondor. “I couldn’t sleep so I took off at 05h00. It was still pitch dark outside. There was no traffic around and just me and the open road through the mountains until the sun came up. The gods were listening to me and I had a wicked ride. When the altitude hit 3500m, the bike really felt it. Everything changed going west. Limited litter which was a big plus, more greenery, cold but manageable. Even the women look different and all have long straight hair! The only worrying part is that when I got here it took 3 strong men to put the tyre on as it’s an old tyre and hard as rock. Hopefully it warms up and softens with mileage. Now I am busy trying to find synthetic oil with no luck. I have lubed the chain, washed the bike, checked on my throttle cable, given her a kiss and all good.
I have to say that today, having experienced a mountain pass one could only dream of, with hours of switch backs and great riding; I have softened on my final conclusion of this country. One has to see firsthand how the rural side of the population lives. It’s easy to cast judgment on first impressions, and not appreciating what little or nothing these people have. Tourists fly in, stay in fancy accommodation, get driven around and miss the big picture.
I confess I got all het up about all the litter however, do they have services? A sewer system? Public health? They live in the sticks and most live hand to mouth.
The cities are a mess with people everywhere, hustling for money, jobs, scraps etc. The big tourist-draw cards are all situated within village which have obviously grown and resulted in just a mess of traders and hustlers. This in turn has resulted in more litter, the classic being the world heritage site of Lalibella. With all this revenue the government cannot even keep the site clean which is disappointing.
As per the country side, it is generally bland especially in the South; however the Simian Mountains remind me of Lesotho, majestic mountains for miles and miles, sand roads and not too many villages. The weird thing on driving west to Sudan is that it all changed, much cleaner, and great viewing on the mountainous splendor.
Would I go back? No
Would I recommend it? No
Post by Debra Bouwer